Empathy on Fire

I was recently a volunteer for Challenge Day at my local middle school, an anti-bullying program to build empathy, compassion and spark positive change in the kids who take part.  Little did I know how powerful this day would be for the dubious 80+ 8th graders who participated in this workshop – and for me.  They were the last group of the entire 8th grade class to take part and many had already heard through their peers, that they “would cry.”

As a therapist who works with adults (individuals and couples), empathy is a big topic in my practice.  It’s one of the pillars of emotional safety that binds people together and there are many reasons why empathy is a challenge for many.  Your life experience might not have demonstrated empathy and in fact, in might have shown you that there is good reason to build up your defenses and keep others from seeing the vulnerable and authentic you.  Empathy isn’t only about empathy for others but empathy for yourself.  A lack of empathy can indirectly cause harm to someone.

Lately, there’s been discussion and studies about the decline of empathy in young people.  As we often hear about, teens are using social media to harass and shame each other, sometimes to the point of the victim taking his/her life.  It’s a tragic commentary on our culture that these incidents continue as they do.  Every time I see a story about a teen (or younger) suicide, I can’t help but wonder about where the decline in empathy takes us.

When I heard about Challenge Day and the chance to take part in their day long workshop with kids in my community, I jumped at the chance.  THIS is where it needs to start to not only stave off bullying later but hopefully plant seeds for future empathy building in their adult relationships.

Challenge Day

Music blasted in the auditorium, the adults screamed, whooped and hollered with enthusiasm, creating a tunnel for the kids as they came through the door; dazed, leery and just plain freaked out at the oddness of our behavior.  And this marked the beginning of an incredible day.

The crazy beginning and antics the facilitators had instructed us to perform in the beginning were strategic in order to create safety in the room, to allow the kids to relax and even join in on the craziness.  We all jumped and bopped around, locking arms with random others and dancing together to blaring music in a blob of sorts, smiling, sweating faces….defenses beginning to come down.

Eventually came the first serious moment where one of the highly trained facilitators told her personal story of pain, tragedy and ultimately, thriving.  The mood started to shift.  There were tears the eyes of many of the adults and a few kids as they heard her recall with tears in her eyes feeling alone, abandoned and scared in her situation.  More defenses slid away.

“If you really knew me you would know …”  

The facilitator used this lead-in to tell her story and this became the connection tool that every single participant, including the adult volunteers, used to share with their own group of five or six.  I knew I was going to be expected to participate in this experience but I had no idea what this would look like.  This was the time to go deeper, to let strangers into your world and past what they THINK they know about you.  I went first in my group and like the facilitator had done, I authentically recounted personal pains of my own and how they have impacted me.  It was unnatural at first as a therapist who is trained not to let sessions be about you (and what we learn as parents of children) but I allowed the process to unfold as it was intended.

When I glanced up, all six 8th grade pairs of eyes were locked on me, with tears in them.  And one at a time, they took their turn sharing, “If you really knew me you would know…” with more authenticity and rawness than I ever could have imagined.  They cried for themselves.  They cried for each other.  And we all cared, shared and supported each other in our little group world.   It was as if the rest of the room had disappeared.   A few times, the student sobbed with his/her head down and had no further words.  I walked around behind and put my hand on their shoulder for support.  The facilitators made their way around the room to do the same as they saw fit.

Defenses gone.  Empathy on fire.

Empathy on fire

The whole gym, made of of 15+ small groups throbbed with empathy.  The few times I looked around the room, I saw every small group like mine in the same compassionate, emotional and connected vortex.  Tears flowed all around.  When the groups had made it around to all members the facilitators instructed us to get up for a few minutes and the kids were to find their friends and offer support if needed.  It was a beehive of swarming kids running for each other and crying in each other’s arms.  The room continued to pulse in a way I have never in my life experienced.  Tears rolled down my cheeks as I observed this scene unfold.

Cross the LineChallenge Day: Love

Strategically and with great purpose, the day moved to another emotional peak with the “Cross the Line exercise.  There was a long line in tape across the gym floor and everyone stood on one side.  A facilitator stood on a chair at one end of a line and called out experiences that there is no control over like:

  • If you’ve ever been picked on cross the line.
  • If you’ve ever been judged because of the color of your skin.
  • If you’ve ever felt pressure by family, friends or others to be perfect cross the line.
  • If you have experienced drug or alcohol addiction in your family or have friends who struggle cross the line.
  • If you have ever lost someone to drugs or alcohol cross the line.
  • If you’ve ever said something disrespectful to someone else cross the line.
  • If you have ever felt abandoned by a parent cross the line.
  • If you’ve had family or friends incarcerated or in the legal system cross the line.
  • If you’ve experienced domestic violence cross the line.

Kids and adults crossed back and forth.  Once the group crossed (which in some cases was only a few), those who hadn’t crossed put their hands up in a sign of love (thumb, first finger and pinky) to those who had crossed.  There was a silent pause as their love was received across the line.  More tears, more realization of the pain others carry and being there for each other.

Lessons Learned

The day was not all intense, in fact, much of it purposely lightened, particularly the lead up to the meat of the day and the lead out.  We danced and jumped around like a bunch of wild banshees at the end with music blaring again.  Kids got up on the mic and shared what the experience was like for them.  Many apologized to those they had teased and disrespected, promising to never do it again.  Others got up and shared how they never realized how much pain some kids have and how badly they feel for them.  A few said they learned that you never know about someone from what you see on the outside.  Wow.  Wow.  Wow.

They allowed opportunity for kids to make repairs to each other as well, milling about in our standard “blob” format but this time with no music.  The facilitators challenged the kids to think about how they will carry their lessons forward to continue to “Be the change.”  My hat is off and I bow deeply to Challenge Day.  I never could have imagined so much shifting and awareness could occur so quickly and I will never forget this experience.  I wish every school in this country could have it.  I went home emotionally drained but flying high on a cloud of what is possible.

If you’re interested in learning more the Challenge Day program, their workshops, how to get them to come to your school (they do elementary, middle and high school as well as workshops for adults), etc go to ChallengeDay.org and be the difference!